Introducing Cross-Racial Conversations of Motherhood Through Chicana Identity
What makes a mother and how can she mother her children effectively in her community within imperialistic-patriarchal-racist-capitalistic conditions? In Alejandro Morales’s The Rag Doll Plagues (1992), biological motherhood and the act of mothering become a means of servicing humanity itself. Victoria Carroll comments on how the mixing of blood constitutes the racial mixture within Chicana identities in The Rag Doll Plagues, ultimately resulting in newfound kinships outside of that of a traditional family tree. She argues that “The mixing of blood, the inter-bleeding of cultures and identities (whether by kinship or the transferal of viruses), precipitates the act of joining, forging new ties of relatedness between people precisely because, in a visceral way, bleeding evidences the mobility of blood, its propensity, and thus its potential, to reach beyond the borders of the body, the family, the community, and the nation” (Carroll 16). In The Rag Doll Plagues, we see unconventional families, or rather, kinships, form in response to the epidemics of the US and Mexico’s past, present and future. Readers witness these kinships as they enable the characters that are biological mothers to care for and nurture their children amidst the sacrifices they must make for the continuation of their offspring’s survival. Melina Abdullah assesses the role of womanism in relation to black motherhood. She also discusses the use of kinship to share child-rearing responsibilities and build a sense of community outside that of the conservative nuclear family. She makes the argument that “Womanist mothers challenge the confines of the nuclear family, embracing extended familial and communal bonds, drawing from traditional African gender roles, kinship ties and definitions of community to build a “village” that shares in child-rearing responsibilities and enables mothers to develop as full and complete human beings who are guided by spirit as they engage in motherhood and their own development as a part of the larger human struggle for greater peace, beauty, freedom and justice” (Abdullah 1). There is a “village” present within the first and second parts of The Rag Doll Plagues, of which mirrors Abdullah’s notions of womanism, demonstrating just how powerful cooperation between mothers and parties outside of the mothers’ biological family can be in the face of humanity’s destruction. Within Alejandro Morales’s The Rag Doll Plagues, the thematic of the mixture of blood and races is explored, from which a hybridity of motherhood is born. Stemming from Chicana notions of racial hybrids, the result of Morales’s hybridity of motherhood is a kinship between different mothers and forms of mothering. Within said kinships, the sacrifices of biological mothers are supplemented with the aid of others, forming a forgiving and compassionate ideal community. Readers can connect the multifaceted means of mothering within The Rag Doll Plagues to humanity’s ever-present contemporary need for unconditional support of unconventional mothers.
Home: Where and What Does It Look Like?
Before analyzing the notions of motherhood, mothering, and community that emerge within The Rag Doll Plagues, the role of the “home” within a Chicanx setting must be taken into consideration to better understand the perspective Morales’ piece emits as Chicano literature. In Nichole M. Garcia and Dolores Delgado Bernal’s article comments on the functionality of the “home” in relation to Chicanx families. They argue that:
there are no safe spaces and home can be a site of that struggle. . . The challenge . . . we face is how do we speak of tension, conflict, and the ruptures that seep into the home as it is just not within Chicana/o households that this occurs. A lot of what we encounter in the ‘‘home’’ is from the residue of White supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. . . . venturing out of the ‘‘home’’ is key because ‘‘home’’ is not restricted to the nuclear family. Our epistemologies of ‘‘home’’ come before, between, and after us in spaces we enter and leave. (Garcia and Bernal 568).
In traditional Chicano culture, “home” left females “[b]urdened with the responsibility of perpetuating [traditional Chicano] culture. . . As mothers and wives, they were expected to support their husbands and to bear, nurture, and educate their children” (Garay 144). Given that the traditional home–both Chicano as well as just about any other “traditional” conservative home (i.e. white, black, etc.)–is dangerous and oppressive, it is imperative for mothers and those who need to be mothered to seek the familial-like trust one can receive outside of the domestic sphere, beyond the confines of the nuclear family unit. If the husband/patriarch–that is, of course, assuming a patriarch is available, which is not always the case–isn’t going to support the mother figure, then who will? In order for mothers to survive and thrive, “home” must be expanded beyond that of blood and immediate household, thus creating the hybrid and diverse ideal loving community made up of individuals who want to support motherhood and mothering. Readers can further visualize this community within the events of Morales’ novel.
Unconventional Motherhood Prompts the Change We Need: Love
In the first part of The Rag Doll Plagues, labeled “Book One: Mexico City,” a Spanish doctor named Gregorio has been sent over to help fight the epidemic called La Mona that is decimating the population. While working to serve humanity, Gregorio finds himself appointed to save the life of Marisela’s daughter, Laurinda. Unable to do so, he and his partner in saving humanity, Father Jude, are overjoyed when they become aware of Marisela being pregnant. Tragically, Marisela, too, has contracted the virus and is slowly decaying as her unborn daughter grows. Begging Gregorio to help her fulfill her last chance with motherhood, Marisela requests not to be fully amputated to prolong her own life: “Do not take my hands from me. I want to hold my baby” (Morales 56). Just before her emergency Cesarian-section and death, Marisela makes one last request of her caretakers during her final hours: “Father Jude and you must keep my baby. Raise the child for me. Please do not abandon it. Please do not leave us” (Morales 57). Together, several servant “Indian” women, Father Jude, and Gregorio provide aid with Marisela’s childbirth and, consequently, engage themselves fully in the child-rearing of her daughter, Mónica Marisela. Marisela’s ultimate sacrifice for her child–her body, health, and life–is not forgotten nor dismissed by the community that formed around sustaining her pregnancy. Even Gregorio finds beneficial change from this human connection through motherhood. When presented with the opportunity to reconnect with his old life back in Spain, he finds himself too attached to Marisela’s child to let go: “Suddenly, to my eyes, my throat, my mouth there rushed tears and a cry which I stifled into a feigned cough into my handkerchief. . . . The sweet smell of cinnamon reminded me of my house in Tepotzotlan, the three women servants, Father Jude and my beautiful Mónica Marisela, people I loved and would never leave” (Morales 64). Given that this was the same man who initially distinguished himself from the “Indians” and looked upon Mexico with disgust, this passage demonstrates just how powerful the ideal community can be when we support our mothers.
A Contradiction Worth Noting: Tearing Apart the Feminine/Mother
Before readers move forward in analyzing how exactly the ideal community works in The Rag Doll Plagues, it is important to acknowledge the contradictions within my analysis through a feminist reading of the novel. Returning to the fate of Marisela, what exactly does it mean that Gregorio chose to tear her apart, cutting off her limbs to delay her demise during her pregnancy and, ultimately, cutting her open and killing her in order to save her fetus? Is Monica truly being saved here if her mother’s body is torn up, dissected, and discarded into the heaps of colonial Mexico’s dead bodies? In R. Joyce Z. L. Garay’s article, she addresses a multitude of instances in which female characters and their bodies are dehumanized and discarded within The Rag Doll Plagues. Through her lens as a Chicana feminist, she argues that “Morales reifies Chicana archetypes—La Virgen, Coatlicue, La Malinche— in his constructions of each of Gregory’s female counterparts. While these archetypes may remain as historical shadows in accordance with the collision of time and place that unifies the novel, the archetypal quality of Morales’s female characters echoes nationalistic principles concerning gender, sexuality, and family. Even as he exceeds holistic replication of Chicano nationalism in his postmodern novel—complicating mestizaje, hybridizing homeland, and critiquing racism, economic injustice, abuse of the natural environment, and excessive dependence upon technology—Morales does problematically replicate the Chicano nationalistic concepts that dictate stereotypes and the secondary status of women as well as compulsory heterosexuality” (Garay 143). Notably, she also addresses Marisela’s c-section, stating that:
Gregorio delivers Marisela’s second daughter, Monica Marisela, by primitive cesarean section and lays her across Marisela’s limbless torso seconds before Marisela’s life passes from her. Having in essence birthed the child himself, Gregorio assumes a parental role and, by proxy, a filial and romantic connection to Marisela. The intimacy with which Gregorio assumes parental responsibility for and an emotional connection to Monica Marisela reinforces the notion that, while not physically his own child, Monica Marisela is nevertheless the product of the symbolic union of Gregorio and Marisela, or the raza born of Spain and New Spain. Most significantly, however, the corporeal Marisela, rather than becoming and acting as a partner with Gregorio, is extinguished in order to become the symbolic mother of Gregorio’s future, the shift in his consciousness embodied in Monica Marisela herself as more an idea or representation of Gregorio’s vision of New Spain than a human being. (Garay 151)
Garay’s reading contradicts my previous claims that Gregorio merely reflects “positive change” from having joined a mothering community in caring for Marisela’s baby. While one could still argue that there is some positive change in Gregorio regarding his demeanor towards the native women of Mexico as well as Mexico as a whole after his experience with Marisela, notions of colonialist-patriarchal and misogynistic thinking are unavoidable in assessing his actions regarding Marisela herself and her body. While Garay points out that Gregorio does put Marisela, a representation of “the loose and illicit sexuality stereotypically attributed to native women” (Garay 151) through her unconventional motherhood as a mistress, on a pedestal due to his infatuation with her, it is important to note that he does not hesitate in cutting off her limbs, nor does he listen to Father Jude’s order not to try “saving” Marisela and her child via a c-section. Although Gregorio is part of the community that raises and nurtures Marisela’s baby, where does this devaluing of the feminine human life leave readers looking through a lens of motherhood? Is there any true autonomy left for unconventional mothers in Morales’ novel, given that he demonstrates Marisela as a self-sacrificing lamb, walking willingly into the slaughterhouse if it means that her baby will live? As a mother of two children via very traumatic c-sections (the births of both of my children taking place outside of marriage, thus marking me unconventional) amidst the ongoing c-section US epidemic, this over-simplification and discarding of Marisela deeply disturbs me.
The Ideal Community in Action
In “Book Two: Delhi,” readers witness a multitude of motherhood and mothering through the narration of Gregory, a descendant and doppelganger of Gregorio. One instance is that of Doña Rosina, the mother of Delhi’s youth:
Doña Rosina not only had made the jackets for the Delhi homeboys, but for many years had taken care of them when they were in trouble. She had bailed them out of jail and tried to steer them away from drugs and violence. She had adopted and loved them as if they were her own. By her actions Doña Rosina had become the mother of Barrio Delhi. (Morales 88)
While Doña Rosina has no legal nor biological obligations to the youth of Delhi, she voluntarily engages herself in their welfare. Her demonstration of mothering sets the tone for the coming together of a community in this section of the novel. As explained by Abdullah in her text on Womanist mothering, “Mama” does not pertain merely to mothers who are of blood or biological relation to their children. Rather, Mama means “an empowered, strong mother figure whose guidance, nurturing, wisdom and mother wit ushers all who she mothers towards greater safety and freedom. “Mama” is a title of respect for both “bloodmothers” and “othermothers”” (Abdullah 59). The ultimate mothering community forms around the slow death of Sandra–a biologically Jewish and socially Chicana “transcultural goddess” (Garay 153) diagnosed with HIV–, Phyllis’s biological daughter, including that of bloodmothers, like Phyllis, and othermothers, like Doña Rosina. Together, Doña Rosina, Sandra’s mother Phyllis, Gregory’s mother (simply referred to as Mother), and numerous other characters from the community work to mother Sandra in her death: “In less than a minute we surrounded her bed. Her mother and father held her hands. While I looked upon the faces that cared for Sandra, she gently expired” (Morales 128-129). By providing aid to Sandra, her community also provides much needed support for her mourning biological parents, whom she continuously pushes away until her death:
Sandra denied [her parents] access to her room. . . . But when she was in the morphine induced ghost-sleep, beneath a blue heavy sea, they came and sat by their only daughter. She had become their child again. Bill and Phyllis faithfully bathed and changed her clothes. They slept at her side, held and kissed her. When Sandra slept they were always there. (Morales 127-128)
While Bill detests Sandra’s friend-family throughout the story, Phyllis makes a point not to criticize Gregory or any of Sandra’s supporters. She respects Sandra’s wishes to be away from her folks, thus sacrificing her need to be there with her daughter throughout this very difficult process. By doing so, she shows unconditional support and love for her daughter, thus unifying her daughter’s supportive community with that of Sandra’s initial mothering.
Alongside readers’ witnessing of the ideal community in action through the mothering of Sandra in her death, readers can also detect facets of motherhood that fall outside of the ideal community’s reach. As Garay notes:
In a scene resonant with, but in sharp contrast to, the birth of Monica Marisela in “Mexico City,” Gregory is compelled to leave a fetus to die unborn in its mother’s womb. A drug addict, gang-affiliated and branded by a tattoo bespeaking her loyalty, the unnamed woman is killed by a gunshot wound to the heart, the father of the child is not of legal age, and the parents of the pregnant adolescent are unwilling to assume the potential responsibility of a drug-addicted infant. Shattered by his powerlessness, Gregory finds salvation in Sandra as she connects him to the life-force, water. But paradoxically, soon after the unwanted fetus loses its battle for life, Sandra miscarries the child she and Gregorio have created, whom both of them so desperately desire. (Garay 154)
While readers can understand the unnamed woman and her abandoned fetus to be results of an unsupported motherhood, seeing as her parents desert her dead body and leave her unborn child to suffocate, leaving only the juvenile father crying out for them to be saved, Sandra’s miscarriage is a more complex image of motherhood. Unlike that of the unnamed woman, she survives the death of her fetus physically, but her role as a mother dies with the unborn baby, seeing as she and Gregory do not try to have a baby again after her miscarriage. One could argue that her loss depicts the emotional death of an unsupported mother. Although she had her partner Gregory’s utmost support, like the unnamed pregnant woman’s circumstance, a domesticated understanding of “home” and family was not enough to survive on. Her parents did not step in to help her during her pregnancy–seemingly because her unity with Gregory was outside that of marriage and her ill body was not ideal for sustaining her own life, never mind carrying that of new life–, nor did she have much communal support at this point of the novel. Aside from the brief fetal and maternal deaths–emotionally and physically–in the scenes depicted above, the unsupported unconventional mother is also captured in this second book. Gregory’s mother is a widow, noted for her ability to care for her family despite the loss of her partner. His sisters are notably single mothers by unfortunate circumstances, too. He explains that his “Mother . . . .learned to live alone. . . . The women in my family lived without men. Yes, my sister had children but they lived independent lives” (Morales 83). Given that the women in Gregory’s blood family are examples of mothers outside of the traditional understanding of “home,” could readers understand these women to be revolutionary forms of unconventional motherhood, resistant to the idea that without their patriarchs, they are nothing? Or is their survival a mere fluke in the system, given that there is no indication that they are supported in their motherhoods, but rather, appear to be alone? Without further insight into these women’s lives, seeing as they are not the primary focus of Gregory, readers are merely left to wonder and assume. Still, their presence is an interesting contrast to that of the other facets of motherhood within this second part of the novel.
A Forewarning: Fracturing the Mother
In “Book Three: Lamex,” readers are exposed to a grave future for humanity without motherhood, or rather, a lack thereof of the mother figure within society, through the perspective of another Greogry: the descendant and repeated doppelganger of Gregorio and Gregory from the second book. Despite the fact that the US, Canada, and Mexico have become “borderless” allies, the separation of its inhabitants by race and class remains prevalent. The depictions of mothers and mothering within this third book are fractured by the dissociation of humanity from its communities during a widespread pandemic. Readers can first note motherlessness through Gregory’s assistant and companion, Gabi. Gabi, like Marisela, has lost a limb, but not quite for the same purpose. She chose to “amputate one arm and be fitted with an electronic medical diagnostic device . . . in order to advance professionally, an ironic twist on the last-resort relief provided by amputation as treatment for La Mona in “Mexico City” and an even more ironic contrast to Marisela’s self-sacrificial resistance to the amputation of her limbs for the momentary human connection of holding her newborn” (Garay, 156). Garay argues that Gabi is depicted as:
less than wholly human. . . . Gabi is constructed as a Llorona-esque anti-mother, seemingly without any desire for the companionship, commitment, and family for which Gregory pines. She is also characterized as Malinche, a self-absorbed traitor, her institutional loyalty greater than her connection to Gregory and greater than any commitment to liberatory vision. Unlike the pedestal upon which Gregorio places . . . Marisela in “Mexico City,” and unlike the disembodied and inaccessible cosmos Gregory creates for Sandra in “Delhi,” Gregory in “Lamex” establishes his Gabi as equally inaccessible but does so through disconnection and negativity. Thus, instead of seeking to better their world as two capable beings, in “Lamex,” Gregory achieves insight because Gabi does not, and her downward spiral and death catalyze his success. Only by characterizing Gabi as Gregory’s opposite—weaker, selfish, disconnected, inhumane—is Morales able to posit a vision of the future, a vision that requires solitary male heroism. (Garay 157-158)
Like the contradictions of the ideal community present in the first book, the treatment of Gabi in the third book emotes misogynistic tones. Through the dehumanizing attributes of living within a disease-ridden society as well as one disconnected from its sense of community and caring/mothering for one another, the feminine is extinguished along with that of the mother. Within the extinction of the mother comes also the termination of the children, the future. Readers can note this disturbing conclusion within the following passage, narrated by Gregory:
I turned away from a child whose reddish-colored extremities had begun to turn black and blue. In those innocent blue eyes the clean sea appeared as it was hundreds of years ago. I leaned him back against his dead mother. I suppose I should have felt sorrow, but that was an emotion that humanity had done away with long ago. (Morales 139)
Only the privileged patriarch like Gregory can emerge supposedly victorious in such perilous times, but at what cost? What is left in this inhuman society but death and decay? Certainly no patriarch can grow a population on his own, especially without the ability to feel empathy for children.
Despite the initial hopelessness of this third section of the novel, Gregory–though a very flawed and by no means supportive character–finds hope and a sense of community outside of his blood within the cross-racial couple Ted and Amalia. Garay argues that “Gregory finds [Ted and Amalia] to fulfill his need for human connection” (Garay 159). She states that Gregory:
sees . . . Ted and Amalia Chen’s relationship as a clear reflection of the fictional relationships he admires. Of Korean and Mexican descent respectively, Ted and Amalia live, notably, in the border space between MLE (Middle Life Existence) and LLE [Lower Life Existence] communities and embody this border mentality as well as Morales’s argument regarding racial and cultural hybridity. They are also the only individuals in “Lamex” to articulate environmentalist anxiety and an accompanying desire to enact change as they recognize the connection between illness and the ignorance and carelessness with which waste is disposed of and then disregarded. Ted and Amalia are a barometer of social conscience for Gregory, and as they reach the decision to bring a child into their world despite its flaws and impending horrors, Morales conveys this decision as symbolic hope for the future, an echo of the promise Gregorio in “Mexico City” sees in the birth of Monica Marisela. (Garay 159-160)
Within one of Gregory’s initial interactions with the couple, Amalia openly contemplates the choice of motherhood and raising a family with her husband but chooses to decline the opportunity given the uncertainties of the plague and what kind of world her potential children would have to live in. And yet, towards the end of the third book, Amalia reveals her being several months pregnant, thus ending the novel towards a more hopeful note of humanity’s ability to return back to a possibility of continuation towards community via motherhood and mothering. Amalia demonstrates personal sacrifice by risking her potential children’s wellbeing by bringing new life into existence.
However, the ultimate sacrifice and example of mothering arguably comes not from a biological mother within this section, but rather, a revolutionary form of mothering one’s community by literally sacrificing one’s own blood. Gregory, like his ancestor Gregorio, is actively engaged in fighting the pandemic. However, unlike Gregorio, Gregory is able to find a cure through the taking of blood from peoples of Mexican descent, or Chicanx people. One soldier in particular voluntarily gives his blood to Gregory’s research, which leads not only to the sacrifice of his own freedom and livelihood as an individual but also that of his peoples entirely, seeing as they are used or “farmed” for their blood, with every elite family in the continent possessing a Mexico City Mexican, or MCM. This formation of community is not what one would call ideal seeing as it is rather forceful and not mutually supportive of one another in a humane way. Sure, the MCMs are given a lavish lifestyle by their “adoptive families,” or, rather, their owners, this sacrificial capitalistic form of mothering further forewarns readers of what a society without the support of its blood mothers and other mothers would look like. With the loss of motherhood comes the loss of a society’s sense of humanity.
The Future in Mothering
Motherhood, like humanity, is a hybrid, multi-faceted, and diverse means of creation and human connection. As indicated by the events that take place in Alejandro Morales’s The Rag Doll Plagues, without the support of our mothers, we risk losing our humanity and succumbing to inevitable disease and decay as a society. However, with support, we can rebuild communities and enable the continuation of our survival, implementing the sacrifices our mothers make as a starting point. “The Revolution begins at home” (Moraga and Anzaldúa lvi); meaning that, in order for our mothers to continue surviving, the reshaping of the home is in order. The functionality of the home being expanded to encompass that of the community is integral to this process. As put by bell hooks, the “beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world” (hooks 265). Through the coming together of diverse friend-families, the ideal or “beloved” community can be reached. It is imperative now more than ever during the pandemic of covid-19 that we realize this transnationally. As explained by UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund) in their article titled “In crisis after crisis, mothers around the world are asked to do the impossible,”
Mothers already shouldered tremendous financial, physical, emotional, and intellectual burdens before the onset of the pandemic. But now ‒ under increasing economic pressures, attenuated access to health care, diminishing social support and growing unpaid care responsibilities ‒ many of these burdens have become crushing. All of this is taking a toll on the long-term health and welfare of mothers. Women have been disproportionately affected by pandemic-related job losses, and researchers are starting to see signs of rising stillbirths, maternal mortality and poor maternal health outcomes around the world. (par. 3-4)
While the pandemic endlessly rolls onward, we are currently still at odds with the notion that mothers and those who perform mothering are expected to keep “doing the impossible,” despite all of the extra struggles and traumas that come with child-rearing during a worldwide health crisis. However, this devaluing and amount of pressure placed upon mother figures goes beyond the scope of covid-19’s circumstances. Arguably, “the longer-lasting solution to these greatly unequal burdens on mothers – gender equality, social norms that value and support mothers, and programmes to ensure their health and well-being – remain distant goals. Society must stop asking, and expecting, mothers to do the impossible. It may be hard to imagine, but a better world for mothers is possible” (“In crisis after crisis, mothers around the world are asked to do the impossible,” par. 26-27). The relevance between The Rag Doll Plague’s depictions of supported and unsupported motherhood to today’s apocalyptic perils is more than just eerie: it is an unavoidable cross-racial conversation regarding motherhood and the continuation of humanity.
Abdullah, Melina. “Womanist Mothering: Loving and Raising the Revolution.” The Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, Washington State University Press, 2012, pp. 57–67.
Carroll, Victoria. “Deforming and Transforming: Towards a Theory of ‘Viral Mestizaje’ in Chicano Literature.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, Liverpool University Press, 2016, pp. 323–40, https://doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2016.27.
Garay, R. Joyce Z. L. “Reading Alejandro Morales’s ‘The Rag Doll Plagues’ through Its Women: Gender, Sexuality, and Nationalistic Complexity.” The Bilingual Review, vol. 31, no. 2, The Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe, 2012, pp. 141–65.
Garcia, Nichole M., and Dolores Delgado Bernal. “Remembering and Revisiting Pedagogies of the Home.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 58, no. 3, June 2021, pp. 567–601, doi:10.3102/0002831220954431.
hooks, bell. “Beloved Community: A World Without Racism.” Killing Rage: Ending Racism, Henry Holt and Company, 1995, pp. 263-272.
“In crisis after crisis, mothers around the world are asked to do the impossible.” UNFPA, 05 May 2021,https://www.unfpa.org/news/crisis-after-crisis-mothers-around-world-are-asked-do-impossible. Accessed 06 Dec 2021.
Moraga, Cherríe and Gloría Anzaldúa. “Introduction, 1981.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Third Woman Press, 1981, pp. lii-lvi.
Morales, Alejandro. The Rag Doll Plagues. Arte Publico Press, 1992.